Creating Safe, Inclusive, and Sustainable Communities

Jeremy LaCasse Leadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy of Leadership Interview, Student Leadership

By Jeremy LaCasse, Executive Director, gcLi, Assistant Head and Teacher of History, Taft School, Watertown, CT

As we all look to start the school year, the COVID pandemic and the search for social justice remain central influences in our work of developing the next generation of leaders. While these challenges flavor our work of building community, I argue that they provide a wonderful opportunity. Of course, it is not an opportunity that people are dying of illness or that oppression continues. What I mean is that these dual challenges allow us to think more specifically and fully about our school communities. 

Often, the creation and function of school communities is an afterthought, something that happens and, because it has worked in the past, we continue on with the same approaches, traditions, and values, without applying the intentionality we give to a math class or theater production. The challenges of the moment mean that we must take the necessary time to create a plan and implement that plan for creating a safe, equitable, just, and sustainable community. 

Let’s start with safe. Safe has so many potential levels. Safe from pain, safe from disease, safe from violence . . . safe from discomfort. This past year has taught us how to keep a community healthy and safe. Other challenging events have helped us mitigate the potential for violence. The final safety I note, discomfort, is one that parents often want us to achieve and I suggest we should not indulge. Dr. Lisa Damour writes and speaks eloquently about mental health. Mental health is not freedom from discomfort, disappointment, unhappiness. No; instead, it is a person’s ability to know what they are feeling, why they are feeling it, and the ability to deal with those feelings and that situation. As we think about our work with our communities this year, let’s employ this idea of mental health and find ways to create healthy challenges that help our students grow and develop. Helping students make the most of the challenges before them comes from having a supportive and engaged community and that takes planning. 

I argue that we will have a safely challenging community if we also work to create one that is equitable and just. Many powerful examples exist of how our school communities fail to be equitable and just, often mirroring the injustices and inequality of the larger society. Our work in our own communities, where we have some influence, is central to helping the larger society move in that direction. We need to present our students with a vision for that equitable and just community and aid them in creating a microcosm of an ideal society by co-creating a community that prioritizes justice and includes all voices.

Consider this as a possible vision for such a community: our challenge is to create a community where each individual feels valued for who they are and what they bring to the community while also feeling part of something bigger than themselves. The first part of that vision is self-evident. Actions that marginalize people are inherently destructive to the individual and, as a result, to the sum of the community. The second part, creating an inclusive community with a superordinate goal seems oxymoronic in some ways as it requires the individual to subvert self-interest to benefit the whole. In others, it makes all the sense in the world. Namely, our communities need to help individuals see how they are contributing to a meaningful, shared goal. If the shared goal is inclusivity and all agree and understand that goal, the community becomes a feedback loop of positivity as each person pays forward acts of kindness and support. We will all work together to complete meaningful work and our shared growth is as important as any individual achievement. 

Finally, this moment of community creation needs a foundation of sustainability. The design of our old community norms, built on flawed ideas about humanity and our world, need to include new ideas that will work into the future. Many of the old ideas – for example, service to others – will continue to be important. Other ideas, quite literally “man’s dominion over the earth,” are problematic and need to be retired. We must be intentional about creating sustainability in all senses of that word. As one simple example, the idea that students should only add and never subtract from their list of activities and functions is a great example of an unsustainable model. Our schools have added programs, some of dubious educational value, that have become tradition. This moment affords us an opportunity to set those aside and to find a set of activities that offer opportunities for authentic and relevant learning experiences. 

So, as you step into the void of this year, stop doing those things that suck energy and time that have limited educational and communal benefit. Be intentional about how you bring people together and about how your community functions. That intentionality will help you guide your students and your colleagues, leading them toward a vision of greater health, equity, justice, sustainability, and, yes, learning for all. Your work has never been more important and you and your students stand at a moment of revolutionary change. Make the most of it! 

Jeremy LaCasse, Executive Directive, gcLi, is currently Assistant Head of School at the Taft School. LaCasse held the Shotwell Chair for Leadership and Character Development at Berkshire School. He also directed the Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program; served as Dean of the sixth and fourth forms; taught European history and Medieval history; and coached the ski and crew programs. Following his time at Berkshire, he served as the Dean of Students at Fountain Valley School of Colorado, and following FVS, he was the Head of senior school at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, PA; the Head of Kents Hill School in Kents Hill, ME; and the Assistant Head of School at Cheshire Academy, in Cheshire, CT. He graduated with a B.A. in History from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and earned an M.A. in private school leadership from the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College at Columbia University.